Breaking down the West's first round
What we’ll see here are two ferocious tooth-and-nail series and a pair of blowouts.
(1) SAN ANTONIO VS. (8) MEMPHIS
Why the Spurs should win: Even with Manu Ginobili’s effectiveness hampered by his hyperextended right elbow, the Spurs have too much experience and too much discipline to be seriously challenged. Besides, how often does Ginobili use his off-hand anyway?
While Tim Duncan isn’t what he used to be, he can still abuse Zach Randolph’s imaginary defense and hang a multitude of fouls on Marc Gasol. DeJuan Blair’s sub-standard defense (by coach Gregg Popovich’s lofty standards) won’t be fatal because Gasol isn’t an explosive scorer. And the wily-veteran tactics of Antonio McDyess will be a significant plus.
Look for plodding and brutal confrontations between the slow-footed frontcourt players on both sides.
Otherwise, Tony Parker is too quick to be denied entry into the paint — where the only shot blocker Memphis can field is Gasol. Richard Jefferson will respond to Manu’s absence/limitations by gladly stepping up his own offense. George Hill is no Ginobili (who is?), but he’ll demonstrate that he, too, is a championship-caliber player.
Even in their diminished state, the Spurs can make the proper adjustments to overcome the improved but still only semi-respectable Grizzlies.
How the Grizzlies could win: Randolph and Gasol can overpower the Spurs' undersized bigs, with the latter avoiding foul trouble and therefore able to consistently protect the basket. O.J. Mayo shoots better than 40 percent. Mike Conley somehow stays in front of Parker.
Another key to Memphis’ upset hopes is the adhesive defense of Tony Allen. It’s quite conceivable he can shut down a maimed Manu and also take a turn at making Hill struggle. Shane Battier has lost a step but can still play yeoman’s defense.
And it will be the defense of Gasol, Allen and Battier that could turn the series around — in one direction or the other.
Prediction: If Ginobili can play 30 moderately effective minutes per game, the Spurs win in five. If he’s down for the count, San Antonio in six.
(2) LOS ANGELES VS. (7) NEW ORLEANS
Why the Lakers should win: Until somebody beats them, they are still the reigning champs. Forget about their late-season siesta, the Lakers have too much firepower, interior length and championship pride to be stung by the Hornets.
Monty Williams is not foolish enough to let Marco Belinelli guard Kobe Bryant, deciding instead to implement a cross-matching strategy and sic Trevor Ariza on Bryant. Although Ariza’s defensive quickness can occasionally distract Kobe, the ex-Lakers’ impotence at the other end will allow Ron Artest to freelance and help jam up Chris Paul’s penetrations. Belinelli is strictly a stand-still shooter who can score only if he’s totally ignored. Emeka Okafor has size and strength but not much game.
With the Hornets missing David West (left knee surgery), LA will control both boards. The most interesting matchups will be on those sequences when Artest and Carl Landry collide.
Derek Fisher will be the point of LA’s defense, forcing CP3 left. To counter high screen and rolls, the Lakers will squeeze Paul in tight double-teams. Another effective anti-Paul tactic will be to push him into the middle, where the long arms of either Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom or Andrew Bynum can deny him easy shots. In other words, only one of these interior helpers is necessary to control Paul’s penetrations, leaving three Lakers to rotate and tag open shooters.
How the Hornets could win: The overconfident Lakers operate on cruise control, so the games are still up for grabs in the waning minutes. Paul shoots over 50 percent from beyond the arc. The Lakers suffer a mini-epidemic of chicken pox, mumps, poison ivy or diaper rash.
Prediction: Without a totally healthy Bynum, LA in six. With a sound Bynum, a sweep.
(3) DALLAS VS. (6) PORTLAND
Why the Mavs should win: Gerald Wallace is the Blazers’ only first-rate defender, but Dirk Nowitzki is too big, too strong and too versatile to be contained by him. Nicolas Batum has the requisite physical attributes but not the experience to resist Nowitzki’s head fakes. That’s why Nowitzki will control the series.
Elsewhere, Jason Kidd’s savvy and unselfish passing will create dozens of open spot-up jumpers for Jason Terry. Shawn Marion’s off-ball movement will result in easy shots for the same reasons. Portland doesn’t have the interior size to prevent Ty Chandler from being a shot-blocking, rebounding demon. J.J. Barea and Roddy Beaubois can effectively make the game up tempo when they come off the bench.
Explosive scoring, a dependable go-to guy, general unselfishness and plenty of energy off the bench constitute the Mavs’ most significant advantages.
How the Trail Blazers could win: The Blazers can advance for several reasons: J-Kidd has lost two steps, can no longer defend or get to the rim, which makes him easy pickings for the still underrated Andre Miller. LaMarcus Aldridge can match Nowitzki point for point. Wesley Matthews is tougher than Terry. Marcus Camby covers more ground on defense than Chandler does. Batum just might be ready to make a quantum jump in his game. A diminished Brandon Roy is still a winner. Wallace can run like a deer, finish in a crowd, hit an occasional trey and lock down Marion or even Terry. Rudy Fernandez can score points in a hurry.
But mainly because coach Rick Carlisle is the toughest individual in the Dallas organization, and his players are indeed soft.
Prediction: On the basis of their huge edge in heart, Portland wins in seven games.
(4) OKLAHOMA CITY VS. (5) DENVER
Why the Thunder should win: Kevin Durant can’t be at all hindered by any of Denver’s defenders, with the possible exception of Kenyon Martin, who’s more suited to guard power forwards. Nor can Russell Westbrook’s warp-speed penetrations be denied by any of the Nuggets point guards.
With the departure of Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka has been freed to optimize his incredible talents — and is quick enough to avoid being bullied by K-Mart. Thabo Sefolosha’s defense is the perfect antidote for the dynamic offense of Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari or Al Harrington. And Kendrick Perkins’ monumental screens will make life easier for all of his teammates.
Off the bench comes James Harden, another dangerous point-maker who seems to find open seams in any defense. Nick Collison is a valuable energy player up front.
In order to beat OKC, KD must be shut down and Westbrook must be kept out of the lane — difficult tasks for any team, much less the Nuggets.
How the Nuggets could win: The most intriguing subplot will be watching Nene and Perkins go at each other. If Perkins has more sheer mass, Nene’s edge is versatility and athleticism.
While neither Ty Lawson nor Raymond Felton can hope to contain Westbrook, the former can run with him and the latter can find ways to score — especially using screen and rolls — against Westbrook’s subpar defense. If left unattended, Gallinari’s long-distance bombing can take full advantage of OKC’s less-than-stellar defensive rotations. Arron Afflalo is a slightly inferior defender but a much superior scorer than Sefolosha.
J.R. Smith is an even more explosive off-the-bench scorer than Harden, while Harrington represents still another erratic but dedicated point-maker with Denver’s second unit. Timofey Mozgov has developed into a mobile, quick-jumping basket protector.
Denver’s incredible depth includes eight double-figure scorers, and their morale is sky-high after the banishment of Carmelo Anthony. In addition to a shaky defense, OKC simply depends too much on Durant.
Prediction: This should be the most competitive of all the first-round series, with Denver prevailing in a seventh game that spills over into double overtime.
ALSO: Rosen's Eastern Conference breakdown